I have a short checklist of things that I think are important in a good novel: good character development, solid worldbuilding, appropriate narrative flow, excellent thematic concerns – all the things that are important to a good story.
But what happens if the book is trying to do something different than the average novel in its genre? For example, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves is considered a horror novel, but it’s not built the same way as, say, a Stephen King book, so the rules that would normally apply to any other similar book in the genre don’t apply as strictly for House of Leaves. Does that make it a bad book? Absolutely not; it just means that I have to adjust my viewpoint a bit in order to accommodate whatever it is the author’s trying to do.
That’s what happened when I read Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer, the first book in the Terra Ignota series. Set on Earth in the 25th century, it follows the story of Mycroft Canner: a convict paying for his crimes by being at the service of anyone and everyone who might need him. His world works on a socio-political structure that is built upon globe-spanning, clan-like collectives of like-minded people called Hives, instead of upon 21st century notions of nationhood based upon geography and place of birth. For years, this system has not only kept the world peaceful, but has also helped create a technologically-advanced, near-utopic state for humanity.
But all of this is about to change. Behind the scenes, mysterious events threaten to undermine the world’s current stability, and in the meantime, Mycroft helps to take care of a boy named Bridger, who has an amazing – and utterly dangerous – ability: the power to make any of his wishes come true.
One of the most immediately noticeable – and notable – things about this novel is the writing style. Palmer deliberately copies the style of 18th century authors: people like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Voltaire, the Marquis de Sade, and Henry Fielding (but more the first two). And if, like me, the reader has had experience in those kinds of works (particularly reading Rousseau and Voltaire, even if it was a long time ago), then this book shouldn’t be all that unusual or difficult. The prose is rambly, sure, and the narrator breaks the fourth wall a lot, but that’s to be expected of the style, and almost anyone who’s encountered it before can usually cope with it pretty well. Also, there is nothing “pointless” about anything in this novel: what might seem like a completely unimportant, tangential thing at first eventually turns out to be something very important – if not right away, then at some point further down the novel. On the surface it might read as unnecessarily rambly, but rest assured that Palmer has a very tight hold on the storytelling reins.
What this means for readers who do pick up the book is that they will be rewarded with a deep and lengthy exploration of a whole host of equally deep and equally weighty ideas. See, that’s the whole point of this novel: it’s not about plot (of which it has only enough to keep things going), or the characters (of which there are many, but few are really developed), but about the themes. This isn’t a novel in the traditional sense we understand a novel; it is, instead, a novel of ideas. A lot of it is related to worldbuilding, since the narrator spends a lot of time explaining how his world works, but even when it is about worldbuilding it’s also about presenting ideas as reflections or possible solutions to actual, real world concepts and issues. From questions of gender identity and presentation, to the very concept of nationhood itself, Too Like the Lightning holds itself up to the reader as a mirror of his or her world, and asks: how can things be different?
Overall, Too Like the Lightning is a five-star dive into a world of ideas: ideas that are relevant not only to the world within the novel, but also to the reader’s. Though the writing style is not the most direct, the quality of Palmer’s prose is eminently readable, and, for a reader in the right mindset, thoroughly enjoyable. Be warned, however, that this is not a book for the impatient. If the reader isn’t willing to spend the time necessary to truly immerse himself or herself in Mycroft’s world, it might be best to look for other reading elsewhere.
Too Like the Lightning is available on Amazon in a variety of formats; click on the title to find them all.